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Greek Music

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"Greek folk music is a superb combination of elements of ancient Greek music and oriental influences, fused together under the particular conditions of life in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine ages. It is, with few exceptions, free in its native state from any Western characteristics." -- CD liner, Greek Folk Songs and Dances by the Royal Greek Festival Company.

"Of all the European fiddle styles, that of Greece surely must be the most challenging and exotic, combining not only the complex rhythms found throughout the Balkans with scales borrowed from the arab world, but also the extensive use of sliding between notes." —Chris Haugh


Rembetiko is said to be the music of the Rembetes, a subculture that ran the hashish markets, brothels and gambling houses in the early 20th century. Greek society at the time was coping, and not well, with the great forced immigration of Turkish-speaking people who were Greek Orthodox into the urban areas, especially the port cities: Symyrna, Constantinople, Piraeus. "Persecution by the police was intense, and consequently the songs that were composed whilst in jail form an important part of the rembetika chemistry. These songs are rich in information about the trials and tortures of the Rembetic way of life."

From The Greek Popular Modes by Nikos Ordoulidis:

"Greeks call the music style that came with the refugees from Asia Minor in 1923 Smirnéiko [from Smyrna] and, hence, they consider it the very first stage and the forerunner of the rembétiko music style. Furthermore, according to common beliefs, rembétiko has its roots in Piraeus with pieces very much based on the style of Smirnéiko but also with many great differences, such as the usage of a completely different orchestration and a different lyrical theme. After rembétiko, the Greeks speak of the new laikó [popular] music style."

"Rebetika tragoudia (pl.) once designated songs which were originally performed, listened to and/or danced by rebetes, men of waywardness and non-conformity. Nowadays the term is used for much of pre-mid-1950s non-Western Greek popular music. Laika tragoudia (pl.) are post-mid-1950s Greek popular songs." — Development of chordal harmony in Greek rebetika and laika music, 1930s to 1960s; Risto Pekka Pannanen, British Journal of Ethnomusicology, 1997.

"The introduction of characteristics from western music, or from what . . . appears to be western music, was perhaps the most important reason for the transformation of the authentic, maqam-based style (that is, the music of the refugees), to a new one, the rembétiko (Piraeus style)... A crucial difference is that, contrary to the instruments of Greek [popular] music, Arabic-Persian music mostly uses instruments without frets. "

"One of the most important branches of Greek folk/roots/popular music of the 20thC was rebetika. In its most accessible form this is the happy, sunny bouzouki music of Zorba the Greek and Never on a Sunday, but the origins if this style are dark and dirty. It originated among the Greek refugees from Asia Minor/Anatolia (now Turkey) following the momentous population exchange between those two countries in 1923. These new arrivals, though Greek by descent, formed a new urban underclass, ending up in the slums, hash dens, brothels and prisons of Piraeus, Thessaloniki and Athens. They created a new musical style often compared to the blues, with its themes of poverty, dispossession and despair." mdash;Chris Haugh



Greek music for dancing includes both traditional and more modern popular songs, often termed Laika.

The two most popular dances of the Rembetes are the zeibekiko and the hasapiko. From the Damn Society! website: "The zeibekiko originated with the Turkish Zeybek tribe and quickly became the favourite of the Rembetes who preferred it for its highly individual style of performance. The dancer is allowed great latitude, for as well as being a serious, introverted dance, humour can be introduced by various feats of showmanship (standing on bottles, lifting tables, chairs, etc). Most zeibekiko dances commence with a taxim - a long series of wandering notes eventually settling down into a mode - thus creating an atmosphere and setting the mood."

From Rembetica liner notes: "Though Greece is a Christian state, its proximity to countries like Turkey and Albania has ensured healthy components of oriental instrumentation, modalities and melodic inspiration. Many Greeks were residents of Turkey until their expulsion by Ataturk in 1922. Refugees flooded the cities of Athens and Piraeus, bringing with them oriental traditions which enriched the music of the mainland, despite attitudes of the upper strata of Greek Society, which dismissed the music because of its lower-class origins. But it remained a vital expression of the urbanized proletariat, commemorating their lost homes and celebrating the few pleasures available to them in their struggle for survival in the port city ghettos.

"Their music is called rembetica, said to derive from the Turkish argot rebet, meaning outlaw or rowdy. Before World War I, recording teams from England and Germany regularly visited Smyrma (Izmir) and Constantinople (Istanbul), to capture the music of both Greek and Turkish local singers and musicians. After the expulsion, Greek recording activity moved to Athena, taking place in makeshift studios before permanent studio and manufacturing facilities were established at Rizoupolis (Athens) in 1930. Censorship imposed by the Metaxas regime in 1937 severely restricted the lyric content on record and virtually banned 'Eastern' elements from Greek music. Recorded rembetica gradually moved away from its underclass and Eastern origins and closer to the Greek mainstream, though real rembetica could still be heard away from the studios, surviving for several decaes. Few genuine rembetes survive, although renewed interest in the magic has inspired the reissue of many historic recordings.

"Rembetica can be roughly divided into two schools: the Smyrnaic music of Ottoman cities with large Greek populations (pricipally Constantinope and Smyrna) and the rebetica of homeland Greece, culminating in the bouzouki / baglama music of Piraeus in the 1930s. Smyrnaic music customarily features the violin or accordian, along with the laouto (oud) and santouri (a form of hammered dulcimer descending from [an ancient Assyrian instrument]). The music reached high standards in the cafe-amans, where it could grequently be heard in both indoor and outdoor settings.

"In contrast, homeland rembetica began as un underground music, played in prisons, hashish dens and other relatively private places. Musicians were likely to be self-taught part-times, and the singing style was rough and resolute.

"Greek dances associated with rembetica were once performed exclusively by males. They include:

  • the zeimbekiko (9/8), an introspective solo improvised dance which comes from the zebeks, a Thracio-Phyrgian warrior caste from the Smyrna hinterlands. It was the dance par excellence of the manges (hash-cmokers) and rembetes the hasapiko, a form of which has existed from at least the 12th century, originally a dance of the butchers of Byzantium. A formal dance for 2-4 people requiring skill in its execution, it is found throughout the Balkans but is rarely performed well in Greece today. The serviko, a Servian butchers&@039; dance, is an exuberant form of the hasapiko, requiring almost athletic skill. It also seems to be dying out in Greece.
  • the tsife-telli, commonly known as the belly dance, is wide-spread throughout the Near East and has been danced by women since at least the 18th century. The karsilamas is a form of tsife-telli performed by dancing couples facing a pace or two apart.
  • The amanés were unmetered songs closely related to Turkish gazels. Amanés are composed of couplets with frequent repetiion of the word aman ('mercy' in Turkish), allowing a gifted singer to improvise freely within a given dhromos, or mode. Amanés inspired many viruoso singers and some top-notch accompanists too. Amanés were banned by both Ataturk and Metaxas becuase of their Eastern associations. The taxim is a solo instrumental counterpart of the amané."



The fiddle styles of Greece utilize not only the complex rhythms found throughout the Balkans with scales borrowed from the Arab world, but also the extensive use of sliding between notes.

Haugh, Chris; Balkan Fiddle. Web.

Harrison, John; Damn Society!, an Introduction to Greek Rembetika. Web.

Kyriakos Goventas violin solo on Youtube. Revetika music portal. "The urban folk song (which in greek is called laiko tragoudi (song of the people) all around the world, was created to be the poorer people's life companion. Greece was lucky enough to have such a diamond that happened (or chose) to remain rough. Rebetiko. "

Rebetiko playlist on Youtube.

Rounder Records, Rembetica, Historic Urban Folk Songs from Greece, liner notes.

Betz and Strong perform to a Rembetiko by the Toids.

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